Alfred Hitchcock: filling the gaps

More than thirty years after his death, Alfred Hitchcock still seems a living presence. The year 2012 brought two biopics (The Girl from the BBC, Hitchcock from Hollywood); a summer-long celebration of his work in London, as cinema’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad; and the overtaking of Citizen Kane, as top film in the semi-official international poll of film critics, by his 1958 production, Vertigo. Quite simply, Hitchcock remains the nearest we have to a universal representative of the medium, spanning a remarkable range in terms of time (fifty years as a director); of geography (England, Europe, America); of formal elements (silent and sound, classical cinema and experimentation); and of appeal—he remains both a popular icon and a focus for rarefied academic study.

The Genius of Hitch 2012 FOH 4sheet and QUAD v 3 2 jpg

The Genius of Hitchcock, promotional poster 2012 (image reproduced courtesy of the British Film Institute).

Some notable gaps, however, remain in the charting of his career. A Leverhulme Emeritus Fellowship enabled me to visit a range of archives and libraries in both Britain and the US, in the course of researching a book, ‘Hitchcock: Lost and Found’, co-authored with the Parisian scholar, Alain Kerzoncuf. The book focuses on a number of films that have been lost, overlooked, or only recently found, and on the discovery of new data about films in each of those categories.

Two periods are central to this research. One is the Second World War. Hitchcock had moved to Hollywood in mid-1939; before long, he came under bitter attack from Britain for not returning to help the cinematic war effort. But he got on with helping in a range of unobtrusive ways. One example: the British Ministry of Information was keen to use an early propaganda short, Men of the Lightship, to influence audiences in neutral America, but distributors there were put off by the slow pace and the accents. Hitchcock stepped in and did a subtle but radical re-edit. This US version, widely shown but then long forgotten, was tracked down in the Library of Congress; documents discovered at the Imperial War Museum in London throw fresh light on the negotiations that produced it.

The other key period comes twenty years earlier: Hitchcock’s five-year apprenticeship before his first film as director (The Pleasure Garden, 1925), working initially for an American company, then for British ones. During this time he designed intertitles, and later sets; wrote scripts; made two false starts as a director, on aborted projects; and met and learned from a wide range of professionals. The discovery in New Zealand of one of the missing British films, The White Shadow, made headlines in 2011; our own researches have turned up The Man from Home, one of the lost American films, plus a range of new stills and a wealth of contemporary documentation. Putting together the full range of surviving material gives a subtly new perspective on Hitchcock’s formation, and particularly the debt he owed to British collaborators—something habitually underestimated in the process of celebrating (in the words of the slogan used by the BFI in its 2012 publicity) ‘the Genius of Hitchcock’.

Professor Charles Barr
University of East Anglia